The sign may say “Ralph’s Snack Bar,” but make no mistake: The lunch truck bouncing around south Scottsdale on weekdays is all about Sonia Gonzalez.
Gonzalez, a bilingual single mother of three kids, drops her youngest at the babysitter by 4 a.m. and drives from east Mesa to the Ralph's loading zone at 45th Avenue and Van Buren Street in Phoenix, where her truck is one of 90 that sit ready for their drivers to stock them with a day's worth of food and drinks.
As an independent contractor, Gonzalez buys all her food from Ralph's commissary-style warehouse. She also pays for the vehicle's gasoline, the propane that powers the cookers and the salary for the truck's cook, Sonia Mejia, who travels in the truck with her all day. What's left over is her profit.
Ralph Collela founded his company in 1973 when he moved to Arizona from New Jersey and drove a “cold truck” that served no hot foods. In 1982 Collela bought his first three “hot trucks,” and the company has grown steadily since.
Even though he's 64, Ralph is still in the office in the wee hours, taking payments from drivers and putting out fires during the madcap mornings.
“If I have to drive a truck, I'm still capable of doing it,” he said. “I’ll never retire from driving.”
Mejia fills the truck with the ingredients to make such items as breakfast burritos, teriyaki chicken, hamburgers and grilled vegetables, while Gonzalez tends to the shelves that line the vehicle exterior and hold bags of chips, ramen noodles, drinks packed in ice and a refrigerated section with juices, fruit and yogurt. It's still dark when Gonzalez pulls out of the yards and onto the freeway for the trek to her south Scottsdale territory.
A shift for what regular customers call the “Sonia Squared” truck is much like a bus route, with scheduled stops at specific times. (Drivers herald their arrival with a blast of a distinctive horn. To maximize sales, each stop lasts no longer than 10 minutes. Then it's off to the next location a few blocks away.
Gonzalez’s route includes only one construction site; the bulk of her business comes from auto dealerships along McDowell Road in Scottsdale. (The lunch truck is very egalitarian: It stops at Kia and Isuzu as well as Jaguar and Cadillac and Infiniti.) Some places have stops for breakfast and lunch.
“You can pretty much set your watch by her,” said Larry Bockius, director of Scottsdale Lexus. “The service that I want my staff to give to our customers, that's what she gives to my employees.”
Gonzalez knows her customers by name — or by nickname, since Ruben is “Rubencito,” and she addresses many women along the route as “mi hija” (my girl).
The crowd at Wells Fargo Bank is 95 percent women, who order salads even at 9 a.m. Gonzalez isn't afraid to hustle up her business: “I know you're hungry, girl!” she tells one woman who hovers at the back of the crowd, unsure about whether she should buy something. She does.
At Scottsdale Jaguar, the younger mechanics scoop shaved ice into snowballs, which they lob at a “keep right” traffic sign a quarter-block away. Ice normally goes for 25 cents per cup, but Gonzalez cuts them a little slack since they helped repair the vehicle after one of the flip-up windows flipped up into a back wall at their dealership.
The teens at the SEES charter school in north Tempe go for chicken wraps, french fries and quesadillas. “Thank you very much, your majesty,” Gonzalez half-jokes to two special-order princesses, a blonde in low-slung Seven jeans and a brunette with a wild mane of supermodel hair. “It was an honor.”
Tailing a Ralph's truck is a little like being parked outside a Burger King all day; the scent of frying burger wafts through the air. The bright blue raised louvers on the top are a little reminiscent of the sails of a frigate, and if your windows are down you can hear Gonzalez shouting to Mejia over the sound of traffic as the truck shuttles to its next location.
Food isn't reheated in a microwave in a Ralph's truck; Mejia spends her day chopping and frying in a galley-style kitchen that includes a grill, a deep fryer, steam tables and a “hot zone” for prepared foods such as barbecued chicken (along with a refrigerator, three sinks and a food-prep area for chopping and wrapping). To minimize the wait between ordering and eating, some foods have been prepped in the morning — hamburgers, for example, are fried only until the blood cooks out — but are finished off on the grill.
After at least 30 stops, Gonzalez returns to the Phoenix yards, switches lunch truck for family car and drives back to Mesa; she's home by the time her children return from school.